Today in History - May 14
Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England, 1796
On May 14, 1796, Edward Jenner performed the first of his 23 case studies involving inoculating people with cowpox (Vaccinia virus) in order to protect them from the worst effects of smallpox (Variola virus).
Dr. Jenner took the pus from a blister on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes, who had contracted cowpox from a cow named Blossom. He then injected this virus into eight-year-old James Phipps, allowing him to develop cowpox (similar to, but far less deadly than smallpox), and once he was healed, exposed him to smallpox. When James developed no symptoms, Edward Jenner presented a paper proposing widespread vaccination against smallpox to the Royal Society of London.
Both clergy and traditional physicians expressed credulity and disgust at the idea, despite the fact that it had been shown decades earlier to be a plausible concept - in 1721 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had herself and her children inoculated with cowpox sores after witnessing the procedure in Istanbul, and not 20 years earlier, Dr. Benjamin Jesty had success inoculating himself and his wife with cowpox during a particularly deadly smallpox outbreak.
More recent studies have shown that the practice of cowpox inoculation against smallpox may have occurred in China over 2500 years ago, but it was never widespread, and the west never truly caught on to the idea until Dr. Jenner proved with twenty-two subsequent subjects (including his own 11-month-old son) that cowpox inoculation was effective and far safer than smallpox itself. Following his second presentation on the subject at the Royal Society of London (including the case studies of his own family), the concept was still widely ridiculed by clergy and some of the public, but the efficacy was no longer seen as a matter of being an “Old Wives Tale”.
Despite his being far from the first to assert the value of vaccination, Edward Jenner is still seen as the one who saved “more lives than anyone else in human history”, because he’s the one who persisted and found a way to convince the community at large of the efficacy of the procedure. After all, in the words of Francis Galton,
In science, credit goes to the man who first convinces the world, not the man to whom the idea first occurs.
More on Edward Jenner and Smallpox:
Edward Jenner at Columbia University
BBC History: Edward Jenner
History Learning Site: Edward Jenner
Proceedings of the Baylor University Medical Center: Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination